For the past few months, the institutions of higher education in Louisiana, including the LSU AgCenter, have been under the threat of deep budget cuts as high as 32 percent. Such severe cuts would be catastrophic. The current word, however, is that a 32 percent cut is not likely to materialize, according to LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson. He is working closely with the Board of Regents and the governor’s office to ascertain the funding levels for the AgCenter and higher education. He says many factors are at play to minimize the impact of the state budget deficit expected for the 2011-12 fiscal year on higher education and health care.
What is certain, though, is there will be cuts in state funding. And no matter what size, they will cause pain. The pending budget reduction comes on top of a steady stream of cuts since 2008, which have reduced the state appropriation to the AgCenter by 16 percent and caused the loss of more than 200 positions. The AgCenter stands today operating at bare bones without a tuition model to soften the effects.
Funds immensely helpful to the AgCenter are the so-called federal "earmarks." These are noncompetitive grants that provide sustained funding for projects that benefit individual states. These earmarked funds are currently under fire by the current Congress eager to reduce the federal deficit.
Here are some highlights of what earmarks have done and do for Louisiana.
The production of wetland plants for coastal restoration. Unfortunately, plant varieties that are salt-tolerant and have prodigious root systems that grasp onto land in marshes and beaches do not propagate well. AgCenter researchers are developing varieties of plants that can proliferate more rapidly. This plant production effort will help save the Louisiana coast.
The development of conservation tillage practices in farming. Researchers have developed and extension agents have taught best management practices so farmers can grow their crops and raise their livestock in ways that will stem soil erosion and improve water quality.
The establishment of the Master Farmer program. This joint program grew out of the need for increased voluntary adoption of environmental stewardship best management practices for farm and ranch lands. The program has gained nationwide attention and has been copied by other states. Farmers who learn and adopt BMPs gain Master Farmer certification from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. The other partners in the project are the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Louisiana Farm Bureau and the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association.
The expansion of the crawfish industry. No other state grows the quality and quantity of crawfish Louisiana does. That’s because of the AgCenter’s research and extension program, which enables the crawfish industry to improve and expand. A viable crawfish industry benefits the state’s economic development. Earmarked funds go into our aquaculture research program.
The control of the Formosan subterranean termite in New Orleans. Four of the articles in this issue of Louisiana Agriculture tell about the success of the Operation Full Stop program in New Orleans. This invasive termite was destroying the historic French Quarter before the AgCenter in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board developed an areawide management effort.
The federal earmarks are being portrayed as pure "pork" that benefits only a narrow group of people. But in Louisiana they have provided funding for discoveries and programs that have helped a broad swath of Americans. Eradicating earmarks will have a negligible effect on the federal deficit. This year, earmarks make up less than 1 percent of federal discretionary spending, which is nearly $1.4 trillion. But their elimination would be one more blow to the LSU AgCenter and its services to Louisiana.
Linda Foster Benedict
(This article was published in the fall 2010 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)